Tuesday, April 30, 2013

If I handled the Cowboys draft

Dallas Morning News sports columnist Rich Gosselin orchestrated an interesting exercise today, inviting readers to conduct their own draft for the Dallas Cowboys. He sets up the hypothesis by reiterating the team’s needs: two starting offensive linemen, a starting safety, an impact defensive tackle, a blocking tight end, a second running back, a third wide receiver and, for added depth, another safety, cornerback, linebacker and pass rusher. "Also," he writes, "keep your eyes open for a down-the-line quarterback if one’s there at the right price."

He makes the exercise a lot easier by offering a number of options at each level of the draft.

So here’s what I would have done. First, I would not have traded out of the 18th pick. Instead, I would have snapped up defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, a Florida prospect many believe would be a top 10 pick, if not a top five pick. In his junior (last) year at Florida, he was credited with 31 tackles (19 solo), eight of which went for lost yardage. He was a Sporting News first team all-American and a third team AP all-American.

Because I didn’t trade down, that means my next pick is at 47, and there I’m taking Larry Warford, an offensive guard who started 37 consecutive games for the Kentucky Wildcats and didn’t allow a single sack his senior year

With the 80th selection (I can’t pick at 74 because I didn’t do the aforementioned trade), I’m going with the same player the Cowboys chose: J.J. Wilcox, the safety from Georgia Southern with 4.5 speed and who also can return kicks (he averaged 25.2 yards per kickoff return his senior year). He also had 88 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups.

Thus, with my first three picks, I addressed three pressing needs, which is much more than the Cowboys braintrust accomplished.

It’s now the third day of the draft and with the 114th pick, although it would be tempting to take a second guard (Earl Watford from James Madison), I’m going to take a flyer on "a down-the-line quarterback" and take Landry Jones of Oklahoma, the Big 12's all-time leading passer. He just seems like too great a bargain to bypass here and, frankly, I’m not sold on the idea of Tony Romo being the answer to the Cowboys’ offensive questions—never have been, never will be.

Besides, with the 151st pick, I can grab my second offensive lineman, Tanner Hawkinson, a 6-5, 298-pound tackle out of the University of Kansas. Because of the current quality of my offensive line, I feel relatively positive Hawkinson can step right in and be a starter.

With my final pick, the 185th choice, I’m taking tight end Michael Williams. Because he played his college ball under Nick Saban at Alabama, you know he’s an excellent blocker. He also had three receptions, one for a touchdown, in the national championship game against Notre Dame.

So that’s my draft and, although I’m prejudiced, of course, I think it’s a better one than the Cowboys had.

So there.

Monday, April 29, 2013

This week's DVD releases

Silver Linings Playbook ***** Silver Linings Playbook is rich in life’s complications. It will make you laugh, but don’t expect it to fit in any snug genre pigeonhole. Dramatic, emotional, even heartbreaking, as well as wickedly funny, it has the gift of going its own way, a complete success from a singular talent. For all its high-flying zaniness the movie has the sting of life, and its humor feels dredged up from the same dark, boggy place from which Samuel Beckett extracted his yuks.

Broken City **½ To put it as positively as possible, there’s never a dull moment in this flick — and that’s not something you can take for granted at this time of the year. At the same time, though, there’s rarely a believable moment in the script.

The Guilt Trip **½ There is something promising about the match-up of an old-school show-biz kid like Barbra Streisand with the modern, anxiously self-aware Seth Rogen, but what could have been the multigenerational Thunderdome of Jewish Humor instead turns out bloodlessly disappointing.

The Details *** Top-shelf cast, headed by Tobey Maguire, slips into familiar grooves of adultery, lies, blackmail, and pet poisoning. It’s the spectacular blow-ups and dressing-downs that make this such a nervy pleasure.

Not Fade Away **** By focusing on musicians who are talented but finally not good or persistent enough to succeed in the big time, Not Fade Away offers a poignant, alternative, antiheroic history of the big beat. It’s a small gem with a killer rock soundtrack, well worth seeking out.

Neighboring Sounds ****½ With his sound designer, Pablo Lamar, director Kleber Mendonça Filho has created the aural landscape of a horror movie. And, for much of its running time, a thriller without a plot. Filho’s mastery of pacing, theme and stylistic eccentricity throughout is so assured as to be breathtaking.

Tchoupitoulas ****½ A jewel-bright whoosh of a ride through nighttime New Orleans. Bill and Turner Ross — the directors, producers, camera operators, and troublemakers behind Tchoupitoulas — could do posterity a service if they simply resigned themselves to replicating this one-night-in–New Orleans documentary for each of the world’s great cities. It explores the border between innocence and experience. It is alive with the risk and curiosity of youth, and unapologetic in insisting that the pursuit of fun can be a profound and transformative experience.

Only the Young **½ Rarely coalesces into anything more meaningful than a casual collection of moments. Maybe that’s the point.

Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa **½ Part of the issue here may be the nature of the talking heads themselves, most of whom are culled from Trungpa’s inner circle and lack the objectivity needed to properly judge his philosophy or make it accessible. The movie goes mushy when it should be critical, and leaves you with questions that it’s not prepared to answer.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A quick look at the Cowboys first two days of drafting in 2013

Let's see. With their first pick they passed on defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, considered by many a top five talent who would have filled a major area of need, and instead traded down to get Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who would have been available in the third round.
But it was the second pick that was really dumfounding. Why on earth did the Cowboys take tight end Gavin Escobar of San Diego State, admittedly a fine pass catcher but a notoriously poor blocker, unless coach Jason Garrett plans to emulate New England's double tight end offense? But to do that, the Cowboys would need a New England quality offensive line. This is the third time since 2006 the Cowboys have taken a tight end in the second round and those picks -- Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett -- didn't exactly work out that well.
The Cowboys will make the argument that Escobar was the best player available at that pick, but I'm not buying it, especially when a better player and a real need, offensive guard Larry Warford of Kentucky, was available.
With the 74th pick in the draft the Cowboys shocked me again, passing on offensive tackle Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, to take a wide receiver, Terrance Williams of Baylor, over the superior WR Keenen Allen of California. My issues with Williams is that Baylor ran the spread which means he didn't face the kind of coverages he's going to see in the NFL. Plus, at 6-2, 208, he could take a real pounding in the NFL, especially running across the middle.
I did like the Cowboys' final pick of the day, strong safety J.J. Wilcox out of Georgia Southern, even though he only played the position his final year in school. He spent his first three seasons as a wide receiver and running back, but that actually might help him figuring out offensive tendencies. He is regarded as a smart player and physical tackler. I'm betting, barring injury, he'll be starting for the Cowboys when the 2013 season opens.
Going into the draft, everyone agreed the biggest area of needs for the Cowboys were the offensive line and safety. They addressed two of those needs (although not nearly well enough on the OL) and I will admit that the current Cowboys offensive line is so poor, they will probably be able to scavenger some scraps tomorrow that will be good enough to start in 2013.
Of course, that doesn't make them a contender. In fact, I didn't see the Cowboys do anything in Days 1 and 2 of the draft to make them any better than last year's 8-8.

Monday, April 22, 2013

This Week’s DVD Releases

The Impossible **½ An earnest, extremely grueling, prodigiously crafted true-life drama that takes one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history and reduces it to a bad day at Club Med.

Promised Land **½ There’s reason to worry when a simplistic movie like this one takes on an issue of overarching importance to the nation’s future. The challenges presented by fracking are immense, and Capra-esque nostalgia isn’t helpful.

Gangster Squad * Director Ruben Fleischer’s first feature, Zombieland, was a half-witty genre parody. This one might be described as genre zombie-ism: the hysterical, brainless animation of dead clichés reduced to purposeless, compulsive killing. Too self-serious to succeed as pastiche, it has no reason for being beyond the parasitic urge to feed on the memories of other, better movies.

A Haunted House (no stars) No-holds-barred comedy is one thing, hurtful thoughtlessness is something else entirely. An ostensible comedy shouldn’t have so many moments that feel so ugly.

The Central Park Five *** Measured in tone and outraged in its argument, it is an emotionally stirring, at times crushingly depressing cinematic call to witness. It’s also frustrating because while it re-examines the assault on the jogger and painstakingly walks you through what happened to the teenagers — from their arrest through their absolution — it fails to add anything substantively new.

Any Day Now *** An outraged, unblinking depiction of institutionalized homophobia three decades ago, when the prevailing court opinion in adoption cases was that exposing a child to a homosexual environment was harmful. Never mind that nobody else wants the child in question.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga *** There is indeed much beauty on display, from the icy Taiga landscape to the age-old trapping techniques passed on through generations. But this does feel like a lesser Werner Herzog project (he joined on after it was shot). For viewers who don’t share his awe, a short film probably would have sufficed.

Wuthering Heights **½ If you can handle the glacial pacing and lack of dialogue, there is a certain squirmy satisfaction to watching this well-worn story of love, cruelty and madness play out minus the long-winded speeches and romantic catharsis.

Family Weekend ** This belabored comedy, directed by Benjamin Epps, has a slick visual veneer and some capable performances, especially by Olesya Rulin and Joey King. But the script, by Matt K. Turner, is loaded with contradictions, its hollow flirtation with subversion amounts to airplane pablum.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why are these council candidates running?

Someone asked me today to pick a winner in the District 13 City Council race, the one between Jennifer Staubach Gates, Leland R. Burk and two other candidates no one cares about except their immediate families. After giving an answer, I fired back with a question of my own: Why are these candidates seeking this seat now held by retiring Ann Margolin?

Jennifer Staubach Gates
So I decided to visit their respective Web pages in search of an answer. Ms. Gates, who, of course, would hope and pray we don’t forget the "Staubach," says "Being a great city means having great basics. As our Councilmember, Jennifer will focus on improving the city services that touch our everyday lives, and she’ll making sure that City Hall is continually working to cut waste, find efficiencies and protect our taxpayers."

Talk about hyperbole. What does that mean exactly? Has she identified "waste" to cut? What efficiencies? And protect us from what, pray tell. (What we need is protection from empty headed city council candidates.)

She certainly has identified ways to spend more taxpayer money. "Council District 13 has the worst streets in the city with 170 lane miles of streets that need reconstruction, and another 70 lane miles of streets that need resurfacing. … As our Councilmember, Jennifer will work to prioritize the immediate improvement of our streets, and she will work to ensure regular maintenance so that we do not fall into such disrepair in the future."

That costs money. So does this:

"Jennifer knows first hand the value of our local parks, greenspaces and rec centers. As our councilmember, she will work to ensure these amenities are clean, well-maintained and enhanced, so that our neighbors of all ages can have access to the outdoor spaces that improve our quality of life."

So she’s for better streets and cleaner parks. That’s really standing tough on the issues.

But how about Burk?

Leeland Burk
He promises, according to his Web Page "to continue the strong fiscal leadership and neighborhood advocacy shown by previous District 13 leaders."

What???? Translate please. Is he including those previous District 13 leaders who are convicted felons?

He lists his priorities as "stimulate smart economic development (as opposed, I guess, to stupid economic development), protect the character of District 13's neighborhoods (does this include Five Points, one of the highest crime areas in the city?), make sure your tax dollars are not wasted (he doesn’t say how, but the way one of his "previous District 13 leaders," Mitchell Rasansky did it, was to be in the minority and vote against everything) and support the efforts of all who are combating crime" (which, I guess, answers my earlier question about whether he will protect the character of all his district’s hoods).

So he’s for economic development, neighborhood protection, against wasteful spending and against crime. Now that’s standing tough.

What I find interesting is that neither Gates nor Burke have the courage to publish a stand on a "real" issue facing the district, such as a lighted soccer field for Ursuline Academy.

Obviously, what we have here is a popularity contest, not a race involving issues. Just another example of why the city is so lacking in leadership from its elected officials and another reason I’m thankful for our council-manager form of government, Heaven forbid we should allow these dolts to actually run things around here.

Texas produces Senate cowards


That’s about how many Americans Texas senators Coward Cronyn and Coward Cruz murdered today. The blood is dripping from their cowardly fingers.

According to every legitimate public opinion poll, the overwhelming majority of Americans favor stricter background checks before a person can purchase a weapon designed to do only one thing: kill. A majority favors the banning of magazines that hold more than 10 bullets and semi automatic attack war weapons in private hands. Even a majority of NRA members favor these regulations.

This is either Cronyn or Cruz; I can't tell them apart.
But, as we’ve all learned, money trumps democracy every single time, especially when dealing with a body of legislators as cowardly as Cronyn, Cruz and their ilk. The gun dealers and the gun manufacturers have the money; the American people don’t. Cowards Cronyn and Cruz simply lack the courage to stand up to special interests. Instead, they see it as their mission to make sure that America’s mass murderers are the most well armed mass murderers the world has ever known.


That’s how many Americans are shot and killed every day of the year. But, according to Cowards Cruz and Cronyn, their deaths are not worth preventing. According to Cowards Cronyn and Cruz, the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School should be forgotten. Their brief lives and their tragic deaths are not anything to be concerned about, according to the two cowards we sent to the Senate.

Instead of looking at the overwhelming need for safety and sanity in the United States, Cowards Cronyn and Cruz blindly and unthinkingly catered to the whims of the gun lobby.

Between 20 and 40 percent of all guns sold in the United States today were sold without the seller performing any kind of a background check. According to a New York Times story on Wednesday, it is easy for criminals to purchase weapons over the Internet, weapons that will later be used to kill innocent Americans during the commission of criminal activities.

Because Cowards Cronyn and Cruz could not come up with logical explanations to explain their cowardly stance, they resorted to what they do best: lying. They claimed requiring stricter background checks would result in a national gun registry, even though the bill contained specific language to prohibit that. One of their fellow murderers, Senator Coward Coburn of Oklahoma argued the bill would raise taxes. Another, Senator Coward Flake of Arizona said the bill would require a background check on a gun sold via an office bulletin board. (Actually, I wish the bill did require that, but it didn’t. Another lie.)

The people of Texas are too wishy-washy to do anything about this, but I’m sincerely hoping that voters in other states will be angered enough by the actions of this cowardly minority in the Senate (a majority, in fact, did vote for sensible gun legislation, but the cowards made sure a majority didn’t win this time) to replace them with representatives who put the will of the people ahead of loyalty to a lobby.

As President Obama said last night: "Sooner or later, we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it, and so do the American people."

Monday, April 15, 2013

This week’s DVD releases

Django Unchained ***** The film doesn't play it safe, so neither will I. Instead, I'll say that it finds writer/director Quentin Tarantino perched improbably but securely on the top of a production that's wildly extravagant, ferociously violent, ludicrously lurid and outrageously entertaining, yet also, remarkably, very much about the pernicious lunacy of racism and, yes, slavery's singular horrors. It also has the pure, almost meaningless excitement which I found sorely lacking in Tarantino's previous film, Inglourious Basterds, with its misfiring spaghetti-Nazi trope and boring plot.

Trashed ***½ If we must talk trash, Jeremy Irons — assisted by a scientist or two and Vangelis's doomy score — is an inspired choice of guide. Soothing and sensitive, his liquid gaze alighting on oozing landfills and belching incinerators, he moves through the film with a tragic dignity that belies his whimsical neckwear and jaunty hats.

Future Weather ***½ Revolving around a quietly spectacular performance by young Perla Haney-Jardine, Future Weather integrates a green message into a striking and emotional drama about intergenerational female conflict.

A Whisper to a Roar ***½ An impressive array of archival news footage, enlightening interviews with activists, politicos, academics and journalists, plus a dispensable Alfred Molina-narrated animated parable, round out this provocative, if at times overly ambitious documentary about the soft dictatorships that constrained five different countries and the peaceful revolutions that sought to expunge them.

Dragon **½ As a whole, it does not quite work, especially at the end, when director Peter Chan tries for a Shakespearean climax of filial rebellion and paternal rage. But at its less grandiose moments, the combination of expressive acting and kinetic action pays off in ways that are likely to satisfy both novices and adepts in martial-arts fandom.

Save the Date **½ The film has the vapid, beige feel of an off-the-peg product made to exploit a niche market rather than a film with something on its mind about what it means to make the jump from youth to adulthood today.

One Day on Earth **½ The film is driven by a we-are-the-world connectedness, but remains a travelogue in search of a defining center. The overall impression is as fleeting as much of the imagery that flashes across the screen.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Coal: the most trusted name in coal

I resurrect this wonderful commercial not only because it deserves another look but also to remind viewers it was written and directed by the Coen Brothers, proving (1) not all their best work is on the big screen and (2) they have wicked sense of humor I wish they would employ more often.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Anderson’s Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson
I was watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s marvelous The Master the other night when I was hit with the sudden realization of a common thread running through all of Anderson’s great films of the last three decades. (Be forewarned: I don’t consider Punch Drunk Love one of his great films.) What all these films have in common is a different look at the father-son relationship, often disguised in his films as the mentor-protégé relationship. Consider the evidence: the relationships between Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights; Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) in Magnolia; Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood; and, of course, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in The Master. I’m not going to psychoanalyze it, just mention it.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Available on DVD: “The Flat”

The search for the truth in the remarkable documentary The Flat begins in modern-day Israel. After the death of Grandma Gerda at age 98, her family begins the long process of cleaning out the apartment that’s like a slice of prewar Berlin life. There are lots of gloves. Lots of bags. Lots of shoes. And lots of books. It’s hoarding with panache.

Yet it’s a newspaper clipping about a Nazi in Palestine that most intrigues the family, and especially her grandson, Arnon Goldfinger, also the film’s director.

Turns out his German grandparents, who escaped the Holocaust by immigrating to Palestine, were close friends with a high official in the S.S. and his wife before — and, more surprisingly, after — World War II. The official was associated with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and was the predecessor to Adolf Eichmann.

Goldfinger looks for clues about how this relationship happened, interviewing his mother, family friends, experts and the daughter of Leopold von Mildenstein, the Nazi in question. There are startling revelations, guilt and lots of people in denial.

The movie feels more like a thriller and a mystery than a documentary. Perhaps someday, someone will be inspired to dramatize this astonishing story.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Available on DVD: “Rust and Bone”

I wish you could see Rust and Bone, French director Jacques Audiard’s beautiful melodrama, without knowing what happens at the half-hour point. But if you’ve seen the magazine interviews with Marion Cotillard, or the reviews of the film, pro and con, when it opened in theaters, or even its trailer like the one above, you already know.

In a dreamlike flash, Cotillard’s Stephanie, a trainer of orca whales at a Marineland park, loses her legs. She wakes in a hospital, like so many other characters in so many movies — especially war movies — to gaze at the end of the bed and the flat nothing of a crisp, white sheet. The shock is seismic.

That’s not the only jolt in Rust and Bone, a love story and a story of two people who bring each other back to life. Audiard, whose screenplay here synthesizes elements of a short story by Craig Davidson, opens with the close-up of feet tramping down the side of a wide road pocked with food franchises and gas stations. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his 5-year-old son (Armand Verdure) are hoboing their way to Antibes, in the south of France, thumbing rides, hopping trains, scrounging garbage bins for food.

Ali is heading to his sister’s, where he hopes to unload his boy and find a job. Which he does, as a bouncer in a nightclub. And that’s how he meets Stephanie, pre-accident, when she comes to dance and gets caught up in a nasty brawl.

The pair reconnect with a phone call that leads to a surprisingly casual meeting, after Stephanie becomes a double amputee. Rust and Bone tracks these two souls — his life rooted in violence, hers marked by a sort of empty sybaritism — as they discover how much they need each other, help each other, and challenge each other. (And want each other — the sex here is urgent, vital.)

Audiard, who made the uncompromising prison saga A Prophet, is like a gritty, realist Douglas Sirk — throwing his characters into whirlwind scenarios that are filled with big emotions and fateful turns of events. But there’s a deep truthfulness here, too, in the way Ali and Stephanie latch on to each other out of need, and then begin to realize they are in love.

Thanks to the ace deployment of digital effects, Stephanie’s absent limbs are, to the viewer, wholly believable, as are the prosthetics she gets fitted with later. But it is what Cotillard does with her body, her face, her eyes, that brings real believability to Stephanie’s plight. It’s an incredibly nuanced performance (the look of total despair in the hospital room; the poetry and exhilaration of the moment when Stephanie, on a sunlit balcony, reenacts the dancelike gestures she used when she worked with the whales). It was criminal that Cotillard, winner of the best-actress Oscar a few years ago for La Vie en Rose, wasn’t recognized again for this performance.

Schoenaerts is just as good. As Ali falls into a world of illegal boxing, winning money and pummeling opponents, it’s like somebody finally knocked the guy the right way in the head: The world, with Stephanie at his side, finally makes sense.

The narrative at the heart of Rust and Bone is a vehicle for sentiment and over-the-top histrionics if ever there was one, but Audiard and his two stars deliver the exact opposite: a film thrillingly raw and essential, life-affirming, sublime.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Available on DVD: “A Simple Life”

In an efficient, mostly wordless sequence near the beginning of her quietly affecting film A Simple Life, the director Ann Hui shows the rhythms of shared routine and intimacy that bind the lead characters. Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has fixed Roger Leung (Andy Lau) an elaborate meal that seems to be his ordinary fare. As she shuffles around serving, Roger eats with a kind of distracted concentration. There are no thank yous or compliments, just a request for ox tongue soon.

These two aren’t married or lovers, but servant and master. Ah Tao, orphaned as a child, has been with the Leung family for 60 years, since long before Roger was born. Now he is the last of his family in Hong Kong — the others have decamped to San Francisco — and Ah Tao works for him alone, sharing his compact apartment.

Just as soon as Hui establishes their relationship, she changes its terms. Ah Tao has a stroke and announces she’s retiring. What’s more, she says, she wants to live in an old people’s home. In scenes with an almost documentary flavor, Roger finds her one. We learn about this growth industry in Hong Kong, about the price of a single room versus a shared one and about the various charges for an escort outside the home. (South Asian immigrants are the cheapest.)

Once Ah Tao has moved, the old-age home becomes the film’s center. Roger visits Ah Tao there regularly. He takes her to restaurants and looks out for her as she always has for him.

That’s more or less the story of A Simple Life, which in its understated, slightly melancholy way considers the varieties of affection and love. Roger, who works in the film business, may seem callous and self-involved at first. But Hui lets his decency be revealed and grow. Lau, whose features increasingly look cut from stone, gives the character an implacable solemnity. People comment on Roger’s kindness or assume he must be Ah Tao’s godson or nephew, an impression he doesn’t correct.

The bond they have doesn’t keep Roger and Ah Tao from seeming alone in the busy city; neither is married or has family around. Ah Tao finds a tentative social life in the home, a place that Hui doesn’t sentimentalize or make into a cautionary tale. There too she emphasizes the distance between people. The occasional overhead shot shows a busy warren of atomized spaces, with a sense of each keeping to each.

The film’s bleached-out palette, with its muted colors — and the sometimes harsher fluorescent light of the home — heightens the atmosphere of loneliness. Hui often shoots Lau by himself in the frame, alone in his apartment or the sole person in a row of empty airport seats. A successful man, Roger runs into acquaintances everywhere. Still, he, like Ah Tao, remains essentially self-contained.

Lau (Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers, Hui’s Boat People), wears Roger’s gravity lightly, as Ip does Ah Tao’s wariness. They’re both guarded but not impenetrable. Hui, a rare successful female director in the Hong Kong film industry, drew her story from real events, and the movie retains a tonic flavor of the everyday: its drama unfolds simply, without explosive moments but not without emotion. She and her two excellent leads keep the film buoyant.